The word ‘dieting’ can bring up negative feelings to many of us. Being brought up on diet culture has drastically affected the way we see our bodies, the way we feel, and often the value that we assign ourselves. This has bred a culture of eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and mental health disorders. We have been indoctrinated to believe that thinness means beauty and beauty means happiness.
This belief system has been repeatedly forced upon us our entire lives, by commercial entities, interested in one thing: making money out of our pursuit of ‘happiness’. The truth is, it’s very rare to find happiness and fulfilment purely based on the way we look, however feeling better about yourself can drastically improve mental health and I am absolutely here for that.I do not believe that there’s a ‘right size’ for anyone, but I strongly believe in improving mental health through boosting self-esteem, and through the release of beautiful chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and endorphins during exercise.
Carrying too much body fat is also a health risk, and so, although I do not believe in reducing body fat for beauty purposes alone, I’m a big advocate of this process for this reason. Perhaps you’ve tried a traditional diet before, such as low carb, low fat or ‘detoxing’ but these rarely work and are the source of many dieting myths. I’d like to run through five myths about nutrition and dieting that I come across way too much, to help you to go about this process the right way.
Table Of Contents
You Should Eat as Little as Possible
That’s a no from me! To lose weight, you need to be consuming less energy than your body needs for all your bodily functions, like digestion, temperature regulation, movement and everything else it does on a daily basis. This is called being in a calorie deficit. It doesn’t mean that you’re starving your body or not providing it with everything that it needs however.
Stored fat can provide A LOT of energy, and so when your body uses all the energy from the food/drink you have consumed, it starts using stored fat instead as an energy source. This means that the amount of stored fat your body has decreases, if you follow this process consistently over a period of time. The length of time needed for this depends on how much excess body fat you have to lose.
Logic would then suggest that the more you restrict your calorie consumption, i.e the further into a calorie deficit you are, the faster this process is. This is both correct and incorrect. It is correct that, if you are in a higher calorie deficit, you will lose weight faster. The reason I say that this is a dieting myth though, is that, long term, it means that you’re very likely going to end up putting most, if not all of this fat back on. This is because there’s a limit to how much stored fat your body will use for energy, and at a certain level of caloric deficit, it will start to use your muscle mass too. The more muscle a person has, the more calories their body uses day to day, even at rest. The amount of calories your body burns each day, regardless of whether you move a lot or not at all, is called your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). If we lose muscle, our BMR falls and so the amount of calories we are able to eat without putting on stored fat reduces. This is why losing weight too fast often means that your new, lower body weight is only temporary, as it will be incredibly hard to maintain.
Protein Makes You Bulky/Fat
Absolutely not! Protein is your best friend on a fat loss journey, which makes this one of the biggest dieting myths. A high protein diet actually protects your muscle mass from being broken down, which it’s at risk of when you’re in a calorie deficit. Combining a high protein diet with resistance training is your best bet of protecting your BMR, and therefore the longevity of your fat loss progress and maintenance too.
It can also mean that you’re able to build some muscle as well along the way. It’s important to note that you won’t be at risk of ‘bulking up’ by doing this. This requires a very deliberate process. Muscle gain while in a calorie deficit is pretty minimal anyway, however it’s still good to do to boost your BMR. The higher your BMR, the more you can eat while still losing weight, or while maintaining the same body weight.
Protein also doesn’t ‘make you fat’ contrary to some dieting myths. Out of the main macronutrients (carbs, fats and protein), protein actually requires more energy to break it down during digestion, and so eating protein burns more calories than carbs or fat. So, although protein also won’t ‘make you skinny’, it isn’t a cause of fat gain. Eat more calories than your body needs continuously, regardless of what it is, and you will gain body fat.
You Can’t Have a Social Life While Dieting
I hate hearing about people throwing away their social life because they’re trying to lose weight. So much of the way we socialise now revolves around food and drink, and so it can be really hard to manage a social life and also stick to your calorie target. Not impossible though, with the right planning. New clients often ask me what the most important thing is to focus on, when losing weight successfully. I will always tell them that the people who put the planning in, are the ones that succeed.
I mentioned earlier about being in a calorie deficit and that this is what results in fat loss. Being in a calorie deficit doesn’t need to mean that you have the same calorie target every single day and you can’t go over it, even at weekends or when you’re going to an event. This is because you can look at your deficit over a week or even month and work out how you want to split this across each day. For example, you could be in a calorie surplus one week of a month and then in a deficit for the other three, and still end up in a net deficit (depending on how much of a surplus/deficit it was!) I find it easier to focus on a week at a time though. So if you have 1800kcal as your daily target, multiply this by 7 and you have a weekly target of 12,600kcal.
If you know that you’re going out for a meal at the weekend, have a look at the menu and estimate how many extra calories you need for what you expect to eat/drink. If you decide you’ll need 600kcal extra, simply reduce other days to balance this out. You could reduce all 6 days by 100kcal, 3 days by 200kcal or 2 days by 300kcal. The option you choose here will also depend on whether you’re planning to go out more than once that week as well as what generally seems to work for you. A bit of trial and error here is fine too, the first few weeks is for working out the right strategy to suit you and your lifestyle.
You might be thinking that this sounds like a lot of effort, and that it might suck the joy out of going out and enjoying yourself, however once you get into the habit of it and start seeing results, you’ll probably find it reassuring. Many of my clients have told me that it takes away guilt that they’ve previously felt for enjoying tasty food and drink while out and about, because they know it’s within their calorie target. They can now enjoy foods that are higher in calories without damaging the progress they’ve been working so hard for.
We’ve been brought up on villainising certain foods like pizza, pasta, burgers, fries simply because they’re higher in calories. But this doesn’t make them ‘bad foods’. It’s true, they are less nutritious than a salad, but so long as you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet that isn’t lacking in any vital nutrients, there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy these foods – in moderation. Too much of these foods, due to their levels of saturated fat, can lead to various heart conditions, but too many oranges can also cause you to develop kidney stones. So everything in moderation.
It’s a Process You Do Every Year
This is a huge dieting myth! Once you’ve lost the body fat you set out to, you should be able to maintain these results, if you’ve got to that stage in a healthy, sustainable way. Your deficit diet (consuming less calories/energy than your body will require so your body uses stored body fat) and your maintenance diet (consuming the same amount of energy your body requires so you neither lose or gain weight) shouldn’t look vastly different. Both should be designed to give your body all of the macronutrients (carbs, fats, protein) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that your body needs to function optimally.
Going on crash diets or diets that omit certain key nutrients like low fat, low carb or juice diets, isn’t sustainable. Losing weight is a long term process of months, not weeks, and so your deficit diet needs to be something you can maintain. This means still eating food that you enjoy, as well as being nutritious. When you have lost the amount of fat you set out to, you simply increase your calories so you’re in your maintenance calories. It’s very difficult to manage this if you’re switching between very different diets as it takes a lot more brain power to then calculate the right calories to maintain your body weight.
If you already know the calorie content of the meals/snacks/drinks you often consume, then increasing this slightly comes more naturally. The reason traditional diets fail, where you over-restrict yourself for a short period of time, lose a lot of body fat and then revert back to ‘normal’ eating habits is that a) your normal eating habits are what caused you to gain body fat in the first place, so it will simply happen again and b) you may even put on more body fat that before, because by placing yourself in such a huge calorie deficit, you have damaged your BMR (see above).
Done right, if you’re carrying excess body fat, you should only need to go through the longer-term fat loss process once, and then maintain those results. Of course, your body fat may fluctuate upwards again after long holidays, or other times where you might decide to indulge more than usual. If you decided you wanted to bring that back down again, you could simply put yourself back into your calorie deficit again until you’re back down to your desired level. A reasonable deficit is 500kcal less than your maintenance, with added movement during the day like extra walks, cycles, dance, or whatever you fancy, to support this. So, the dieting myth here is that you will always have to work on being ‘beach-ready’ each year when the fact is, you can be in control of maintaining your results as much or as little as you want.
You Need to Live on Chicken And Rice
That’s a no from me! One of the biggest myths about weight loss is that you can no longer enjoy food. Firstly, I mentioned before the importance of still enjoying the food you eat while in a deficit. This greatly affects adherence and how well you can stick to the process, and ultimately succeed. But also, because there are now brilliant plant based alternatives readily accessible which leaves little excuse for not jumping on the plant-based band wagon.
Plant-based alternatives are generally lower in calories than meat and so you can eat more for the same calories, leaving you fuller for longer, which is always useful! Being in a calorie deficit doesn’t mean that flavour and interesting, complex meals need to be a thing of the past. You simply need to be smarter about your choices and as I stressed before, plan. Putting in the planning to make sure you can still enjoy tasty, nutritious meals is essential. If not, you are going to resent the process and end up having times where you go ‘f**k it’ and over-indulge so much that you bring yourself out of your deficit.
A good way to plan meals, is to picture your plate split up into sections. As you look at your plate you should have 50% vegetables, 25% protein and 25% carbohydrates (ideally wholegrain/as least processed and as natural as possible). This ensures you’re getting a good amount of protein while also keeping you full for as long as possible. Protein itself is very filling and fibre slows down digestion, which vegetables and whole grain carbohydrates are full of.
For inspiration, simply searching the keyword ‘protein’ on BBC Good Food can be really useful as you can then filter by calories and meal type. You can then tailor the meals to add more veggies/protein as needed. But it’s a good place to start to get an idea of what meals might fit your targets. Ideal snacks should be high in protein too, again to keep you satisfied and full, but also to prevent muscle loss, as discussed above. Things like protein shakes, bars, greek yogurt, boiled eggs, baked tofu and cottage cheese are all great options.
Hopefully these five myths about nutrition and dieting have given you a good starting point if you are looking to lose weight. The key things to remember are to go about this in a sustainable, healthy way. Progress will never be as fast as you want, but if you commit the next 6-12 months to this process and it’s the last time you have to do it, isn’t it worth it? Losing 0.5kg per week (a healthy, sustainable amount) rather than 1kg+ will seem painfully slow at times, but stick with it and before you know it, it’s this time next year, you’ve lost the weight and, more importantly, haven’t put it back on.
Ray is a Manchester-based queer personal trainer and nutrition coach. She provides in-person training at her own private studio, as well as on-line nutrition and lifestyle coaching. She also offers breathwork training sessions to clients and organises excursions to participate in activities like yoga, ice baths and other practices that promote mindfulness. Her passion is overall mental and physical health to strive for happier, more fulfilled lives. You can find out more about her via Instagram.